Using Mindfulness to Control Overeating

Founder of The Mindfulness Project, Alexandra Frey shares her tips for using mindfulness to control unhealthy eating habits:

If you’ve kick-started 2014 with a new diet, well done! It can take a lot of resolve to start that healthy eating kick – but even more to keep it going.

Sadly, statistics show that 90% of dieters don’t manage to keep the weight off. The problem is, all this calorie-counting and the banning of ‘naughty’ foods doesn’t get to the heart of the issue for most people.

What and how we eat has a lot to do with habit. Some people have a sweet tooth, others prefer savoury. Some pile up their plates, others prefer to nibble. Fact is, those habits won’t change just because we ‘will’ them to. Willpower isn’t enough – we need the right skillpower if we really want to change our relationship with food – and those skills can be cultivated through mindfulness.

But how can we change our eating habits through mindfulness? One way mindfulness works is by becoming aware of why we actually eat when we eat. Sometimes the urge to eat comes straight from our belly: the physical sensation of hunger. But very often, we eat just because we are bored, because we’re sad or angry (also called emotional eating) and sometimes to reward ourselves.

Usually there is a stimulus (e.g. physical hunger, boredom etc.) and this stimulus creates a response. So when you are physically hungry, by all means eat! But if you’re eating for some other reason, you can use mindfulness skillpower to ‘surf the urge’. By creating a space between the stimulus (that chocolate bar!) and the response (eating!), we develop the power to make a conscious decision about what and when we eat.

Here’s how ‘urge surfing’ works:

1. Recognise: Imagine you’re sitting in front of the TV and suddenly crave a bar of chocolate. The first step in mindfulness is to simply become aware of such an urge, i.e. recognise it. You can even name it in your head: “look at that, an urge to eat a bar of chocolate”.
2. Acknowledge: Most of us have been told that we ought to ‘get rid’ of such urges once they arise – control them, because they are bad. Or distract yourself by thinking of something else. Unfortunately our brains don’t work that way. Research has shown that the more we resist something or try to make it go away, the more it will persist. Therefore, the second step is to simply acknowledge to urge to have a bar of chocolate. Allow to urge to be there.
3. Investigate: Once you have acknowledged the urge to have that chocolate bar, investigate how this urge feels like in your body. Is it a tension in your chest, a watering mouth or a tickling sensation? Check in and find out for yourself. If you wish, you can even close your eyes during your investigation.
4. Kind Surfing: While you are investigating the urge, just try to be with it for a few seconds, maybe even a minute. Surf the urge and while doing so, be kind to yourself. It’s not easy to surf an urge, so do not expect too much from yourself too soon. Even if you only stick with the urge for half a minute and then go ahead and have that bar of chocolate anyway, you’ve still exercised that part of your brain and could be better equipped the next time an urge comes along, so well done!

The more you observe your urges, the more mindful skillpower you will develop. Research has even shown that this skillpower is like a muscle in your brain that you can grow – just as you can grow your biceps in the gym. But as with the weights, don’t expect to lift the heaviest weight the first time you go to the gym. Unfortunately, there is no quick fix, especially when it comes to our brains. So be patient and kind to yourself. It’s all about training.

This is just one of many mindful eating exercises included in the Mindfulness Project’s Mindful Eating Course starting March 6th, where you’ll learn and practice lots of valuable techniques to develop your mindful skill-power around eating. Sign-up for the free introductory evening on January 30th to learn more about the approach and course.

The Mindfulness Project is the first dedicated centre for mindfulness in London, offering a variety of courses and workshops in mindful living. The aim is to teach mindfulness as a skillset to help people feel good, be more productive, be better in relationships, kick bad habits, unleash creativity – the works! As well as the Mindful Eating course, they’re running a course in Mindfulness for Stress (MBSR) starting on 27th January. Check out the website to find out more.

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